Equally Shared Parenting - Half the Work ... All the Fun

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Here's where we keep you updated on news about parenting as it relates to division of responsibilities, career versus home decisions, work/life balance, and legislative and grass-roots movements toward equality or better choices for families. We'll also throw in our opinions of life as equal parents in a nonequal world, regardless of what's in the news.

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Equality Blog

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Relaxing the Population Control

Back in mid-September, Marc and I discovered that an article mentioning our book had been printed in a German newspaper, Suddeutsche Zeitung (print-only). A kind reader from Germany sent us a copy of the article, and then we passed it over to our speaks-five-languages friend, amazing ESP mom Melissa, to translate for us.

Happily, we absolutely loved it! As it turns out, the article is a description of how the lack of family friendly laws and corporate policies in Germany play a big role in discouraging couples from having children. But instead of only blaming the government or businesses, or waiting for the laws and policies to change, or (heaven forbid) going down that well-trodden path of blaming men for not doing their fair share with the kids, the author, Alex Ruehle, suggests a third option: equally shared parenting. Or, specifically, learning all about ESP by reading a certain book. Yes, yes...we're so proud!

But enough about us. The article goes on to suggest a message that we hold dear - that personal responsibility for the life of your dreams is a vital force. That German couples who want equality and balanced lives need to go out there and create them, just as we feel is necessary here in the US where the policies and laws are even more dismally aligned with our wishes. Says the author (translation by Melissa, brackets added by me), "Now we could say that just a few couples [those portrayed in our book] are not going to change that much in the grand scheme of things. But politics always starts at home. And will things change much if men, who want so much to spend more time with their kids, after a short and failed conversation about it with the boss, go begrudgingly back to the dawn-to-dusk fulltime job? Or if women just shrug their shoulders and keep sitting on the bench at the playground?"

"You read this book and start to dream. The next day, you wake up and go to the office, and it occurs to you that two thirds of German bosses don't give a %$&* about their employees' work/family balance. All these bosses, who react so indignantly, as if someone were asking to do some obscure sexual rite, when someone comes with the harmless request to work four days per week -- can we get rid of these bosses, please?"

"Most women with big careers will sacrifice having children in order to keep their careers. At the same time, companies complain that there are fewer qualified women out there. It makes you want to shout: make a decision, will ya? Do you want us to give you more kids? Then give us more family-friendly flexibility. Otherwise, you'll just have to hold up the economy by yourself."

No, it won't always be easy. It will often be incredibly hard, and not always the path of most monetary wealth. But we each have only one life (or so we assume) - so it would be a shame if we didn't forge our own path.

Monday, October 25, 2010

European Equality

Apparently, there is a bit of an uproar about a comment by a political official in Ireland who referred to the possibility that a company would be more likely to hire a man instead of a woman if the EU were to pass a law offering 20 weeks of maternity leave and 2 weeks of paternity leave. It's not often the masses get angry when additional social benefits are offered which is what makes this story interesting.

Unfortunately, the official used the term 'buxom' to refer to a woman which is generating much of the buzz but columnist Carol Hunt got right down to the meat of the matter. "Granted, the new legislation proposing two weeks of paid paternity leave is a big improvement on none, but shouldn't parents have equal responsibility for their children? Physical and post-partum issues aside, the father of a child has both a right and a duty to demand equal time with a new baby. It's called being a family -- something that, despite all our adulation of the Irish Mammy, we only pay lip-service to in Ireland."

Ms. Hunt goes on to point out that women would be more than happy to share the childcare responsibilities if it were an option. In addition, she claims that, "Practically every new father complains that he would love more time to stay home with a new baby, to bond with them and to feel a part of the new family that they have helped to create."

Her conclusion is spot-on, "If we are to create a sustainable economy with a healthy work/life balance, we have to sensibly combine fair periods of both maternity and paternity leave with far more family- friendly policies in the workplace. We need to challenge the assumption that women are the sole child-carers and men are the primary breadwinners."

Presumably, there are already laws to against gender discrimination in hiring practices, both in Ireland and here in the US but the reality is that unequal leave policies may exacerbate the problem of gender inequality in both the home and in the workplace. Isn't it time to follow the commonsense approach of parental leave? We could eliminate the bias against hiring women and then tackle the cultural assumptions around parental roles.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Facing the Truth

Great column today on Shareable.net, the terrific website for all things shared. The column in question is called Stereotype Me, by Gen Y work/life blogger and entrepreneur, Astri Von Arbin Ahlander, and explores her own personal experience taking on more of the domestic roles at home while her boyfriend assumes a more traditionally male outside-the-home breadwinner persona. Astri is Swedish, and a devoted activist and spokeswoman for gender equality; her boyfriend is American. So it is disconcerting to her to notice that she has quickly and almost eagerly assumed the breakfast-making duties, and later the dinner-making responsibilities, simply because, well, she works from home and because...could it be...because she's a woman?

I've always loved Ms. Ahlander's writing (she used to co-host the now-defunct Work.Life blog on TrueSlant) and really enjoyed reading her analysis of the situation here. Her conclusions feel genuine and ring true. She wonders if she has jumped into unequal domesticity because she believed that her American boyfriend wanted this type of traditional role-based relationship (he didn't), and describes how she feels when he spontaneously decides enough is enough - he wants in on the cooking too - and starts to take over dinner-making.

But the best part of her analysis, for me, is the last. She boils the issue down to one of trust. By quickly taking on the primary homemaker role, she had found a way not to test their relationship for equality. She didn't have to have the potentially scary conversations that would test her mate's true intentions to pull his weight around the house. She could pretend that he would step up if she ever wanted him to, without actually ever addressing the truth. What if she demanded that he share the meal prep...and he didn't? Better not to turn over that rock, right?

In the end, she realizes her own truth (which conveniently matches with mine). She says, "When you share, there is the inevitable risk that one party will take advantage of the other. When you put bigger things on the line than who cooks what, such as sharing monetary resources or responsibility for your kids, that fear just gets more real. Probably, it is the risk intrinsic to sharing that makes people resource-hoarders. But, as tends to be the case with sharing, if the relationship is based on reciprocity and trust, it’s almost always preferable to hoarding. The result for me and my American Joe was not just that we started sharing chores. The agreement that we could and would share deepened our relationship in much the same way that two neighbors who share gardening responsibilities or car pooling shifts become more connected with each other and their community than when they operate as discrete, isolated cells. Sharing demands trust, yes. But sharing also means connecting, and deeper connections lead right back to heightened trust. And trust, well trust is something we, as romantic partners or simply as citizens of the world, can’t do without."

Here's to the courage to face the truth, and live by it together as partners.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

ESP a Novelty? 40 Years Ago!

We often point out how difficult it is to draw broad conclusions on the success of ESP due to the fact that so little research has been done on the topic. We know it is a desired lifestyle by 80% of young women and 67% of young men, according to research done by Kathleen Gerson at NYU but the longitudinal studies of ESP don't exist just yet, or so we thought...

In the current paper version of Time Magazine (October 18, 2010) there is an article called Week-On, Week-Off Parenting. It looks at a study sponsored by the Norwegian government back in 1970 where 16 couples volunteered to participate in a "radically different model of work-life balance." "Some worked alternating days, and some worked alternating weeks." These couples were a unique subset of ESP where they actually shared one job. In addition, each parent was to share the roles of breadwinner, homemaker, and caretaker.

Now, more than 30 years after the experiment, University of Oslo researcher Margunn Bjornholt contacted 14 of the 16 couples to find out a few things:
  1. Was job-sharing, even temporarily, a smart move?
  2. How significantly did the years of part-time work set back their careers?
  3. How much did the arrangement affect their finances? Their children? Their marriages?

Here's what she found:

  1. "Many of the couples (9) continued to work part-time several years after the project concluded." (It sounds like the couples thought it was a smart move.)
  2. "Five years of part time work had not set the men's careers back irreparably."
  3. "Most of the work-share couples said they did catch up with their peers." "The [male children] identify with their fathers and seem to share an egalitarian attitude and also seem to perceive the sharing of domestic work as important."

This is all great news for couples pursuing ESP but my favorite lines from the piece describe the partnership that is the very foundation of an ESP life.

  1. "All the couples recalled the study as a time of low stress and greater quality of life, even though they didn't have much money."
  2. "Three of the couples ended up divorcing, but most said that the experiment strengthened their marriage."
  3. "It's very fundamental that both spouses have responsibility at home," one husband told Bjornholt. "This creates a basis for a shared experience and a shared understanding."

What a breath of fresh air! 40 years ago ESP was a pipe-dream, now it's a real dream, maybe tomorrow it will be a reality?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Commonsense ESP

If we had a nickel for every time someone said that ESP was impractical, we'd be...well...a few dollars richer at least. It's a common complaint, this idea that ESP is not a commonsense family lifestyle.  And for many couples, were they forced to implement it today, this is a valid criticism. Imagine asking a typical breadwinner father to go in late to work in order to drop off his kids at preschool 50% of the time, while his stay-at-home wife puttered about in her PJs...exactly how long would this make sense to either of them? 

But we're not talking about forcing anyone to do anything. Rather the opposite, in fact - we're asking people to wake up to their original dreams for themselves and for each other as a couple. And then to shepherd their lives so that their dreams make complete sense.

This 'practical ESP' is the topic of our new guest blog on PBS Parents' Experts Q&A column. We're the guests there for the rest of October, and warmly invite you to click over to read our post and chime in on the discussion in the comments.

As we say at the end of the post, we would love to hear your stories of crazy-wonderful equally shared parenting, or your reservations about the craziness. What works? What is absolutely nuts?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Take-the-Edge-Off Fridays

For the past eight years, I've worked a four-day week. Fridays have been my 'Mommy Day' - the one day each week I could count on full kid immersion, first with M and then later with T. I've loved my Fridays, even if they were not always easy. And so it was a bittersweet day for me about a month ago when I soaked in my last full weekday with those awesome, sweet, growing kids. And now, even my Kindergartener, T, is in school until 2:30 p.m. on Fridays.  

But wait...I'm unencumbered!

Yes, I've kept my work schedule as it was. I know this is my chance to return to full-time work (or at least ask to do so). I could even potentially request to change my reduced-hours schedule so that I could work five shortened days and eliminate the minimal after-school program hours our kids attend (about 3 hours a week - enjoyed by both of them). But I've chosen to stick with my plan because having time with M and T during the weekdays was only part (albeit a big part) of my enthusiasm for part-time work. The other part is that foundational element of ESP that we call a balanced life. And I want to keep that balance.

So for the past few Fridays, I've had a built-in chunk of time to take the edge off the chaos of the week. I've done things that help me feel I'm accomplishing much-needed tasks at home - little projects that make me feel good inside for knowing they are finally done (like cleaning out the basement). My secret future plan is to use the time for ESP-related activities so this much-loved part of my life doesn't take up my evenings quite as often as it has been doing for the past few years. We'll see.

The great thing about my Friday quiet-time is that I swear it helps me stay more cheerful and productive during the week. I am motivated to crank out the projects at work, dig into my time with the kids, and take care of stuff around the house because I know I have this little slice of heaven waiting for me at the end of the week. I think it makes me a better parent, worker and partner.

The choice is not always easy, of course. My job could easily subsume the time, and I must admit I have snuck back into the office for parts of these past Fridays just to keep up with the work there. But I know that this is a slippery slope, so I wrestle with myself to stay the course.

When it works though, like many other ESP couples, I feel great about trading money for time and keeping the goal of balance at the forefront. It is the road less traveled, but one for which I'm grateful, thankful, and happy.

I don't have the answer that fits everyone - just me. Marc, for example, has chosen to switch to the 5-day work week (still reduced-hours) this Fall - leaving work at noon twice weekly in order to make school pickup; this option feels best for him, and also serves to even out our opportunities to pick up the kids each week.

What would you do?

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Confusing the Past with Today's Possibilities

If you looked up the average time it took to cross the Atlantic in the 1700s, you'd get a very different value than we enjoy today. If you unearthed stats about the American census back in, say, 1901, you'd find there were fewer people living in these 50 states than it shows in our latest census data report. No surprise, right? We imagine you wouldn't dream of using any of these outdated statistics to make conclusions about transatlantic travel or the US population. You'd turn to more current information instead.

Alas, when it comes to data about the roles of mothers and fathers, however, we have seen many journalists make just this mistake. They take old data - from back when men were expected to be primary breadwinners and women were primary parents/homemakers - and apply it to conclusions about what is possible for men and women today in terms of their careers or their abilities to share the home front. It's a bit like saying that women can't have full-out careers because women in the 50s didn't have full-out careers, or that men can't be equal parents because men traditionally haven't been equal parents. Or, even that ESP isn't possible because it isn't common.

The world is changing!

Here's one example of the problem, from TechCrunch. In this piece, author Penelope Trunk says that women should not try to run start-up companies if they want to also have children. Men - no problem, because they are more likely to be fine with abandoning their kids to the crazy hours of a start-up than women would ever be. The problem with this advice is not that start-ups are hell on a balanced life, or that committing to one is likely to prevent you from spending enough time with your kids. These facts are based on the inescapable truth of having only 24 hours to each day. No, the problem is that the whole argument is based only on traditional gender roles.

In our old definition of masculinity, men provided and women nurtured. Men (and women) who buy into this paradigm will fit into Ms. Trunk's description - and these couples had better leave the start-ups to the men. But in today's wider definition of masculinity, there is room for men who have as little interest in skewing their lives toward work-only as there is room for women who'd rather do so. One such type of man, the ESP dad, would be really unhappy devoting his every waking hour to work and missing the nitty-gritty of raising his kids - as unhappy as any typical mother. Slaving away at a 100 hours/week start-up would be his personal definition of a life poorly led.

It is not women, then, who should shy away from running start-up companies (as a general rule), but any parent who wants a balanced life. Of course, having an equal partner at home makes it a bit easier to handle a meaningful career than if you're truly saddled with the bulk of the housework and childcare, but the uber-stressful life of a start-up business owner usually lies on one extreme of the ol' bell-shaped curve.

Beyond its claim that supercareerists can only be male or childless, the TechCrunch article has another, more sinister, message in it too. Ms. Trunk claims that stay-at-home fathers (or, presumably, all involved dads - including ESP fathers) are inferior to mothers in parenting their children. Her data come from backroom chats with women CEOs who gab to her in confidence that their husbands aren't really up to snuff as parents - that these power-career women are really secretly still running the show at home too, even if their spouses are not working.

What's wrong with this conclusion? How do I start! For one, our culture gives women wide permission to belittle their husband's parenting - in fact, it encourages this behavior. Men, on the other hand, are given zero tolerance when it comes to publically belittling their wives' mothering. Our culture also tells women that they have to succeed as parents, and gives men a pass in this arena - and woe be to any woman (supercareer or no) who can't claim that she is a great mom. So it makes perfect sense that a female CEO - who has abdicated the primary parent role to her husband - would poke fun at or complain about her spouse's capabilities with their little darlings. That these women would do so in the company of another female tycoon says far more about their inability to let go than about their husbands' nurturing talents. Secondly, it is a simple thing to find fault with another. No parent is perfect by any stretch, so if a stay-at home dad isn't Mr. Amazing with his kids one day, it would surely be the same if his wife took the parenting reins. And finally, who says these CEO moms can accurately judge their husbands' parenting anyway? It could be that the dads in question make much better parenting decisions than their wives would ever make. Maybe finding "the perfect ballet teacher," as Ms. Trunk intimates a mother would do and a father would always fail to consider, is exactly the wrong approach to a child's childhood. Or not. Just saying....

In the end, there is no longer any gender that need be attached to the life decisions we all make as parents. Start-up venture or parenthood? Big bucks salary or just enough? Full-time, part-time, or stay-at-home? Cincinnati, Manhattan or Bali? Tango lessons or kiddie gymnastics? In the past, women made these decisions in their roles as nurturers and men made them in their roles as providers. Now, many still do. But others, like ESP mothers and fathers, find a middle ground - preserving a great career (but not one that sucks the life out of them), an intimate daily bond with their kids, a chance to tend their homes, and time for themselves and their marriage. They prove, every day, that there is no gender difference in loving and raising children - only a culture that continues to think there is.

Show me data on these parents, and I'll show you a new world of possibilities.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Why Retire?

In our book, we ask: "How much would you spend to get the life you want?" It is our standard response to people who ask what an ESP life might cost them in lost wages, retirement savings, and career accolades. There are no simple formulas for piecing together the necessary income and spending habits to satisfy everyone, of course, but I am quite confident that the goal of an ESP lifestyle is not to attain the "low cost" option, even if it happily turns out to be so for a particular family.

There is plenty of evidence that you can score high on the misery index regardless of how much money you make. Increasingly, a well lived life needs to be measured in relation to so many other factors as well - loving relationships, time for recreation, opportunities to contribute to causes beyond oneself, to name a few. With this in mind, I enjoyed a recent piece on CNN Money where it was pointed out that: "The number of workers 65+ who are choosing to keep working has been on the rise for more than two decades." This is apparently true regardless of how much money these Baby Boomers make. In fact, "half of the high net worth respondents over 65 surveyed said they will always be involved in commercial or professional work of some kind."

It seems that folks are realizing that work offers so much more than just a paycheck. Perhaps feeling this way is a good test of whether you are in the right line of work. If money is the only thing you get from your job it might be time to retool and consider alternatives. Perhaps just a change of scenery in the same line of work would refresh your motivations. Even if your new worklife pays less than your old grind.

We all need to bring in a family paycheck (at least before we actually do retire). But we don't need to make the most important decisions in our lives based only on money - whether that be to create an ESP life in our younger years or to keep working in our older years beyond the time we can afford to retire. The goal with equally shared parenting is for both parents to have the chance to create the career path that satisfies them and fits with time for childraising, housework and recreation so they can live balanced lives, well into the golden years.

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